The Worry About Word Count

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“Bad Cat Sleepy Books” by Melody Daggerhart Medium: digital art, Corel software Hours: 7 All copyrights reserved.

I’m still cleaning out my old blog, and today an old article I wrote about word count caught my eye, so I’m revising it. At the time, I was writing the third revision of The Atheling. My first reconstructed draft was about 200K. The second finished at 180K. And at the time I was writing the article, I had brought the count down to around 179K. (179,856 to be exact, but that wasn’t the final number.) The book was still a monster, partly because it’s a middle section in an epic-length tale. But figuring out a good way to destroy word count was a major victory for me.

Today I was attempting to destroy word count in the fifth revision of The Dragonling. My first draft word count for this book was around 165K, but that was taken without even being close to finishing that draft. Second word check came in around 175K for the second draft. But that included a lot of unfinished scenes that I knew I would have to return to … and probably drastically rearrange. Third draft went up to 208K, and I started cutting scenes because of my panic that the numbers might be getting too high. But it was starting to look more coherent, at least. The fourth draft peaked at 239K. Jeeze! How much higher could this go? … The first fifth draft (a.k.a. the second fourth draft, weirdly named because of drastic revisions that ended up changing major sections of the book, but wasn’t necessarily a true revision with me scrutinizing every line from beginning to end) cranked it up to a tune of 250,537. 😦 … Obviously, it was time to start murdering my darlings, as Arthur Quiller-Crouch once famously suggested. (Cambridge lectures, “On the Art of Writing”, 1914.)

Before I go any further, though, let me throw out a reminder I’m talking about epic fantasy series. And the word epic means … well, BIG! This genre is known for its length and attention to detail. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is actually one long story divided into three volumes. And perhaps you don’t need to know the exact words of the poems spoken or the definitions of translated Elvish or what someone’s lineage looks like down through the ages, but those kinds of “ornamentation” are exactly the kinds of details that give these imaginary worlds realistic depth. Also, middle and end books of epic series tend to be uber thick compared to first books or stand-alone books because it’s their job to bring all of those plot threads together toward an end. If the story is complex, it takes a lot of pages to follow each twist, complication, and obstacle encountered before that end is in sight. The alternative is to cut out scenes that could leave the reader thinking, “But what about this thing mentioned back in book 2? Whatever happened about that?” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of how heavily loaded plot closures can be toward the middle and end of a series. The last two books in that series were written as one ending, but divided in half for practical handling and purchase. (Something I might have to do for my own series if my next book’s word count becomes completely unreasonable.) If it’s a choice between thinner, quicker, cheaper books and a quality closure, most fans invested in a series would rather have a quality closure, I think.

But my first article on the worry over word count prompted me to do a little research back then. How big is too big when it comes to novels? When I first started writing, the standard word count for fantasy novels was 50-100K, which is bigger than most fiction genres because it takes into account that the author must use more words to build imaginary worlds. The average first novel published by an new author shouldn’t be more than 50K because big paper books cost more to produce than little paper books, and that cost is passed along to the consumer. Cost of digital production shouldn’t be as high, but word count still affects editorial fees, since they charge by the hour or word/page count, and marketing. Readers are also less likely to invest money or time in long, expensive books by authors they’ve never heard of.

And yet, when I voiced concern in the past about word count, the majority of responses from readers and writers alike was along the lines of, “whatever is needed to tell the story.” Though some people prefer short stories, nobody likes stories that feel rushed. So, while I’m still frustrated at how each book in my series gets progressively bigger, I have to remind myself that butchering scenes for the sake of word count simply is not the right approach for this particular series. The Hobbit is 95,022 words. Fellowship of the Ring is 177,227 words. But The Order of the Phoenix (from the Harry Potter series) was 257,045 words! And The Gold Finch was high on the charts during my first publishing of this article, making good sales in spite of having a whopping 296,586 words from a relatively new author! On the down-side, it’s also been rated as one of the least-finished books because people don’t have the time or attention to devote to it, for whatever reasons. I realize I might lose some readers if my books are too long, especially if bad editing or boring content comprises some of that wordiness. But I love long books, so I write what I would enjoy reading. And I take heart that I’m not the only reader who loves epic tales that continue bringing me back to familiar worlds and intimate characters. I’m not the only reader who loves stories so complex they simply take longer to unravel and play out.

Bottom line … Many writers, editors, and readers will drop a high-word-count script like hot metal. Word count matters because of publishing costs, marketing concerns, and reader preference and attention. But word count should never be the most important aspect by which we judge books. Words are merely the tools we use to ply our trade. “… it is up to the writer to say when the story is done.” [Quindlen, Anna (September 23, 2002), “Writers on Writing: The Eye of the Reporter, the Heart of the Novelist”, New York Times.]

Just for fun, here is a list of some of the longest novels ever written. I was not surprised to see that War and Peace was included. I was, however, surprised to see Les Misérables. And I felt rather pleased and proud to have actually read and enjoyed Varney the Vampire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_novels

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Derivative Works and Dream Casting

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Dream Casting anyone? … Singer and actress Hanna Spearritt’s portrayal of Abbey on the BBC series “Primeval” comes close to being a good Aija in both looks and personality.

Recently a few people I talked to brought up the pipe dream of my books being made into films. At this stage it’s definitely a pipe dream! But one thing I’m learning about this year is forward thinking: moving toward what I want, rather than wasting energy on fear or doubts. So, I’ve decided … why not dream for a bit. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on our love/hate relationships with derivative works … such as turning books into a film or TV series. But there are other conversions, too, like graphic novels, anime, and one very controversial topic in itself: fan fictions. I have much to stay about fan fictions and derivative works in general, but here’s my two cents on derivative works based on MY writing.

I self-publish right now because my priority is to finish and publish this series while I have the chance. Ever since I was a kid stapling pencil-illustrated books together for my stuffed animals I have dreamed of publishing books. So, right now, I’m not interested in selling to a traditional publishing house. I want complete control of this project from beginning to end, right down to the cover art. This is MY vision.

Having said that, would I sell to a traditional publisher if they asked? Probably. But contract terms would play a major role in how I sell it. I can always write more books, but this particular series has been on my brain since high school. I can’t let just anyone have Elf Gate because I wouldn’t want to see it twisted into something I don’t recognize just to make it fit the mold of market trends. I will continue to be stubborn about that.

Would I sell to someone wanting to make a graphic novel? Definitely. Again, contract terms would make or break the deal for me, but these books are dark fantasy, so they are practically begging for someone to develop them into a high-quality graphic series. However, these stories are very complex. I’m not sure how much would be lost in translation, but I would be okay with that because it is the nature of the beast when switching from whole pages of text to speech bubbles. It would take great skill to reduce the content enough that the images say everything necessary, but to see the stories come to life either as manga or western-style comics … yes, I would love that.

Would I sell to someone making an anime or action cartoon? Same answers as above: definitely, depending on the contract. When I first started writing it, I actually kind of envisioned it as an anime, a bit like Record of the Lodoss War. I think it would be well-suited to an animated format because live-action fantasy films and TV series are still kind of hit or miss.

Which brings me to live-action TV series or film. I’ll admit I’m not as confident about this kind of conversion because, while computer graphics technology have done miracles for fantasy elements in the visual arts, overall fantasy genre film and TV have a reputation for sucking. 🙂 (I say that lovingly, believe me.) Either they invest all their budget into special effects and end up with superior eye-candy but a flat story; or they write a really good story, but can’t invest in the high-end graphics, so it ends up looking cheesy. In spite of continued growth, fantasy is such an “unrealistic” genre that the budget to make the impossible come alive with credibility can make or break the project in the eyes of the fans. As a fan of the fantasy genre, I would want the final product to be high quality. But once the rights are sold, authors have very little say in the production. (Usually. Some production companies will hire the author as a consultant on the set, but not always, and they don’t always agree on how the book should translate into performance art.)

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Source image: “Heath Ledger ROAR Tribute” by mldrfan. … Could you see him as Shei, the adorably blond-braided, quick-witted bard?

Along these same lines, I was asked who I think should play the character roles. I honestly haven’t thought about that much, but I think I would prefer motion capture or otherwise animated graphics, rather than actors under make-up. The reason is I don’t want my elves to look like humans wearing rubber ears or blackface. My elves are black, white, and shades of gray … not shades of pink or brown. Their facial features lean toward Far East Asian traits around the eyes and nose. I’m sure I could come up with actors who might look the part, or be versatile enough to play the role, but in some cases we’re talking about going back a few years … such as Heath Ledger making an excellent Shei or Triz … because, yes, he was that versatile. I could see a young Hannah Spearritt as Aija based on the character of Abbey that she played in the BBC series Primeval. But the one character portrayal that caught me by surprise as looking and acting soooo much like one of my own creations was Nichole Galicia’s performance as Kindzi on the American TV series Defiance. In the right kind of light, she was the spitting image of how I imagine Íenthé. If I ever come up with a better “dream cast” than that, I’ll let you know.

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Nichole Galicia’s role as Kindzi on the American TV series “Defiance” was a stunning throwback to my own Íenthé. But with longer ears and fangs. 😉

And finally … there’s fan-fiction. I won’t get into fan-fiction as a topic here, other than to say as a writer and artist, I learned my trades by practicing with other works I admired. I think this is just how the untrained mind learns. However, copying already-published works without creator permission is theft. So, it’s where we draw the lines on what harms the creator’s earnings or perverts the integrity of the original work that form those conversations. In the end, it’s best to have creator permission when it comes to published works, or at least a link back to the source if it is not easily found via search engine.

Would I mind someone writing fan-fiction based on my original stories? I would like to think I would consider “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” as long as someone doesn’t actually infringe on my copyrights–by posting my stories on-line without my permission, by selling them for their own profit, by taking credit for the character creation on any fan art, etc.  I prefer to see the best in people.  And if I could spend more time world building, I could probably even be persuaded to participate in something like Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, where authors allow fans to legally use their world settings and canon characters to write their own plots. Some role-playing game companies, like Wizards of the Coast, have long been “fan friendly” when it comes to such things, and they even have a web page where you can download the company’s logos to help give credit where copyright credits are due. (http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/fan-site-kit) Since a large part of honing my own writing came from writing game material as a dungeon master, I know what it’s like to be so inspired by a story I loved that I hated to see it end … or had my own ideas about using an old setting to create a whole new plot and characters. … If, however, someone abuses my creations or does infringe on my copyright to steal credit or profits I worked hard for, I admit it would be hard to continue being “fan friendly”. Since I don’t earn much as it is, it would probably make me paranoid to share anything self-published if I knew someone was intentionally robbing me blind.

So, there it is … my fantasies about the future of my fantasy novels. 🙂 Will these ever come to fruition? Only time can tell. Right now, it is enough to have good reviews and thoughtful feedback from readers. Hearing back from readers is often the only thing that inspires me to keep fighting to make this dream a reality.  If nothing else ever comes of my scribblings, other than what I myself produce here at Bad Cat Ink, at least I can say I was fortunate for a short time to do what I felt I was put on this earth to do.

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This amazing painting “Zi” by Heise (check out more of this artist’s work at the link shown in the corner) made me think of Trizryn while under his light elf illusion, but his skin would have to be even more pale than this. Graphic arts or computer graphics definitely have the advantage in bringing fantasy characters to life, imo. (Maybe a dream cast drawn up from art works would be a fun thing to do later, too!)

Freelance Publishing Services

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Bad Cat Ink

I’m back! 🙂 And I have added a new page to my blog. As part of my grass-roots publishing business, Bad Cat Ink, I am now offering a few simple freelance services by contract. Right now I’m offering copy typing, proofreading, beta reading, editing, content writing, and small illustration. I hope to expand my offerings as the business grows.

You can find the tab at the top of the site, or go here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/services/ , for my contact information. Describe your project to me, and I’ll get back to you with a quote on the price; and we can work out the rest of the details from there.

Unless otherwise specified, my planner is now open for new clients.

And speaking of freelancing businesses …

I read this article today from Inc. by Melanie Curtin: “In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours”. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait for you to come back. It has some good information on the history of the 8-hour work day.

No time to read? Summary: the average worker pulling an 8-hour work day is productive for only 3 hours. THREE! I remember reading once that the average student in school actually spends only 2 hours learning anything because the rest of the time is spent waiting in lines, transferring to different classrooms, shuffling papers, etc. Also, I am aware that some countries in Europe have cut their work days to 4 days a week, or cut their hours to 6. Or they now allow time for workers to take naps, or do other things between tasks … like hit the gym or meditate.

I think the reason for these new, relaxed shifts is the ever-increasing numbers of people suffering from depression and anxiety, from over-scheduling their own lives and the lives of their kids, and from not being able to carve out time to even take care of ourselves anymore with basic necessities like cooking healthy meals, finding time to exercise, or getting enough sleep. We are burning our candles at both ends trying to multi-task, yet studies tell us there is no such thing. The human brain can do only one task at a time, so when we try to do more, our chances of making mistakes increase, productivity slows down, or we drop the balls we’re trying to juggle. We set ourselves up for failure trying to do the impossible. And then we beat ourselves up for not being perfect enough to keep the pace going. So that makes us feel even more like failures.

What does this have to do with freelancing? During my time off, I felt guilty for not working, even though I have been working on other things in my life that needed attention. I still planned my days from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. I still had to-do list items that did not get done. I was still very stressed trying to push things into motion that seemed to be going nowhere. And on top of that, I lost a pet and was grieving while trying to carry on.

But even before taking time off I felt guilty for working only 2-4 hours a day this summer (because I work at home and have seasonal chores I have to do during early morning hours, and I’m trying to force clearance in my days now to take care of my mental and physical health). I kept thinking, “What kind of loser am I, that I’m clocking only 2 productive hours a day?” But I wasn’t looking at all the other “tasking” I was doing around and that, which now includes taking care of my mind and body so that I can be less sleepy, more creative, and not have health issues influencing whether I can accomplish my tasks, or not.

I have pulled my share of 17-19 hour days … through weekends and holidays. They suck. I have worked through all three meals (which consisted mostly of bowls of cereal, instant noodles, and cookies), fighting sleep over my keyboard, to try to finish edits ASAP. I have worked on multiple big projects simultaneously, and it never fails that one-by-one they fall away, until I realize I have worked on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. But then I feel guilty that I’m not doing five projects at once, when the truth is there are not enough hours in the day to keep that pace going. The result is I get sick, I get stressed, I suffer burn-out and depression, and eventually it becomes a struggle to get out of bed. So, how is that in any way even remotely productive?

I would love to see 4-day work weeks and 4-6 hour work days become the norm. Freelancers around the world would probably feel less like anomalies compared to their commuting peers to realize the average worker is only good for 3 hours. But the main problem I see with putting this plan into action is that hours can’t be cut without also boosting pay. Living wages, especially for non-salaried or part-time workers, are hard enough to come by working the 17-hour shifts through weekends and holidays. So, unless we can simultaneously cut hours and boost basic income rates (which has been done before and has been successful when it was tried), I don’t see this “drive yourself into the ground until you are insane” pattern changing for modern society any time soon. Still, it’s nice to see some countries are aware of the problems and thinking outside the box to try to find solutions.

What do you think? How many hours a day do you believe you are actually productive at your job, compared to how many hours you are paid to work? Do you think we will ever see a more balanced labor plan for the labor force as a norm?